“My favourite time of the day was always late,” recalls Ukrainian musician Anna Sagalova. When she would finish work with her students at the I.P Kotlyarevsky National University of the Arts in Kharkiv, she would sit and play the piano on her own. “There was this total possibility to practise into the middle of the night,” she says.
Sagalova, who taught at the school for 17 years, fled Ukraine with her young son a week after the Russian invasion began in February, 2022. “It was impossible to stay,” she says, as her hometown’s proximity to the border made the city a strategic target early on. After first travelling to Lviv in Western Ukraine, the pair then stayed with an academic contact in Weimar, Germany, before arriving in Canada in June. Sagalova is now based in Vancouver while her husband, who is a musician and composer, remains in Ukraine.
Kharkiv became a UNESCO City of Music in 2021. Since the start of the war on Feb. 24, 2022, more than 4,000 buildings in the city have been damaged, with one third of them hit directly, according to Deutsche Welle. Sagalova’s school will require major structural repairs. Also known as Kharkiv Conservatory, the institution, established in 1917, reflects the city’s once-vibrant music scene. Its student ensembles include an award-winning folk orchestra, a chamber orchestra, a choir and a symphony orchestra. It also has an opera studio.
When the war started, staff and students scrambled to collect whatever instruments they could for safekeeping, but they couldn’t get the pianos – more than 60 in total – out of the building. The grand Steinways are still sitting in a room with cracked walls, dripping ceilings and no windows. Moisture, dirt and grime have resulted in snapped strings and warped wood, and rendered the inner mechanisms useless.
In an effort to rebuild, the university has founded the Mystetskyy Allians Charitable Foundation, with Sagalova holding concerts in Canada to help raise funds. “I feel it is my duty to show the staff and students that they are not alone, that they are supported,” she says. Produced by Pickle Underground in partnership with Toronto’s Canzona Chamber Players, the performances so far include one in Vancouver last month, and a coming show in Toronto on Jan. 17.
The Toronto concert mainly features music by Ukrainian composers – Mykola Lysenko, Myroslav Skoryk, Mark Karmynsky and Volodymyr Ptushkin, who died six weeks after the start of the invasion.
“Ptushkin was one of my teachers and friends as well, though he was much older than me. But we were close,” Sagalova says. “I think it’s very important that his music be heard.”
Closing the programme is the work of Ukrainian-Canadian artist/musician Anna Pidgorna, whose composition Amhrain Chaointe: I. Caoineadh Eibhlin (Keening Songs: I. Eileen’s Lament), with the text of 18th-century Irish poet Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, will be performed by soprano Rachel Krehm. Sagalova’s presentations in Canada, including appearances at various Vancouver venues last autumn, have been met with enthusiasm. “I didn’t expect it was possible,” she says. “The people who are coming for the concerts are so warm – it feels amazing to see their reaction to the work.”
The Canadian venues are more intimate than the spaces Sagalova – who has also performed in Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and China – is familiar with. In Ukraine she appeared at music festivals including Kharkiv Assemblies (of which she is artistic director), acted as a jury member for numerous music competitions and conducted regular cross-country tours. Her final performance there was at Kharkiv Conservatory on Feb. 22, 2022. “It was hard to manage,” she recalls.
The choice to settle in Vancouver is largely owing to the support of friend and fellow musician Eugene Skovorodnykov, a Ukrainian-Canadian pianist and artistic director of the Vancouver International School of Music. The institution shares an association with Kharkiv Conservatory, and it is currently where Sagalova teaches.
“I am very glad that now it’s possible for me to combine work here and in my home university,” she says. “Nobody knows how the war will finish, or when, so I thought I should have some way to be independent.” The 31 students Sagalova once had in Kharkiv have been whittled down to three, all of whom she now instructs online.
Life in Sagalova’s hometown is returning, she says, and Kharkiv Conservatory is setting up a small concert venue in the basement. “There are events in bomb shelters and on ground floors now, and people are coming for those concerts. They need the possibility to find something optimistic in terms of how to live, after everything.”
Would she return to Kharkiv? “I don’t know,” she says. “Nobody knows how or where this will finish. And when this war does end, then I will decide together with my husband if he will come here or if I will go there. But for now, I will try to do everything I can for my hometown.”